The government’s approach to schools closing early for Christmas was mired in confusion this week after two academy trusts were given the green light to shut a week early, just days after another trust was blocked from doing so.
Schools Week revealed this week that Focus Trust cancelled plans to close its 15 schools across Manchester and West Yorkshire on December 11, a week earlier than planned, after the government intervened.
Schools should be allowed to use their own judgment based on conversations with local health services
But it has emerged that the Lion Academy Trust and the Lion Education Trust – partner academy trusts – have been told they can close all nine of their primary schools on 11 December. Parents were notified of the changed term dates early in the autumn term.
Dr Mary Bousted, National Education Union joint general secretary, said: “It speaks to the general chaos of this government, that on the one hand, two trusts are being allowed to shut their doors early this term while, on the other hand, the Focus Trust has been very publicly rebutted.”
The Lion Academy Trusts runs six primary schools across Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire, and London, and the Lion Education Trust, has two primaries in Essex and one in London.
A spokesman for the trusts said they were contacted by Sue Baldwin, regional schools commissioner (RSC) for East of England and North-East London this week.
But they said the published term days “will be adhered to. These were revised at the end of September and were communicated in good time to our families and staff. We are proceeding on that basis and will continue to deliver the best possible education for all our pupils in every setting.”
The government’s winter plan, published on Monday, stipulates that schools “should not change their Christmas holidays or close early this term”. Prime minister Boris Johnson underlined the desire to keep pupils in school “as much as we can” during a press conference this week.
Bousted added: “Schools should be allowed to use their own judgment based on conversations with local health services, but a great deal of the mess we are now in could have been averted if Boris Johnson had acted faster and heeded advice on a circuit break for half term.
“As things stand, we emerge from lockdown with hardly any areas of the country in tier one, and a virtual Christmas for most families.”
Focus Trust, which is based in the northwest of England, declined to comment. It had made the decision to shut schools early to ensure families could gather safely over Christmas, but this plan proved short-lived after it was given a “formal” notice.
Vicky Beer, the RSC for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, said in a letter to the trust seen by Schools Week, that she “cannot support” the decision and earned that, if the trust did not U-turn, she would “escalate” the case to ministers who “may wish to consider further action”.
The trust backed down, saying it had been made aware for the first time that, under the Coronavirus Act 2020, individual trusts had no academy freedoms to make decisions for Covid-related reasons, such as setting their own term dates.
Under coronavirus legal powers, the secretary of state can issue a temporary continuity direction “requiring the taking of reasonable steps” to keep a school open and also “require the alteration of term dates”.
The DfE also denied Focus Trust permission to run two inset days at the end of term or move to remote learning.
The Confederation of School Trusts said the powers in the Coronavirus Act were not included in any guidance shared with trusts. Steve Rollett, CST deputy chief executive, said: “We do not think enough has been done by the DfE to communicate the powers the secretary of state has … and to explain how these powers relate to existing legislation and academy freedoms, relating to the trust sector.”
Meanwhile, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council has told parents that schools with term-end dates of either December 21 or 22 will close two days early. Schools will instead “provide home learning on these days”.
The DfE confirmed that the council has been approached, but would not comment on the outcome of discussions. Stockport council has not provided a comment.